Know Your Genres: Action Role-Playing Games

Just what do we really mean when we talk about “game genres,” anyway? Sure, you’ve probably seen that “fans of the genre will enjoy this” phrase in umpteen game reviews, but the truth is that the most durable game genres have walked some long, ever-evolving, and very interesting roads over the past several decades. In this weekly series, Xbox Wire’s editorial team will break down exactly what shaped your favorite genres, why they’re so timelessly awesome, and where they’re headed – while providing you with some expert advice on the past and modern classics that you should check out!

This week, we examine a subset of the role-playing game: the action-RPG. It’s difficult to specifically define, or rather delineate, the characteristics of the action-RPG versus a traditional RPG, but we can say a few things for certain. Action-RPGs put players in situations where they must make decisions in real time – there are no menus or tactical interfaces in-between their characters and them. Further, action-RPGs tend to emphasize combat over other aspects of role-playing, and they tend to focus on single-character, rather than party-based RPG mechanics. It is a fine line, however, and arguments will be made about games on the border – so let’s not stress. Instead, let’s talk about some of the classics that are roundly considered to be the best of the sub-genre, and get into its history while we do.

The Past

The action-RPG has its origins in two games from the 1980s – one from the United States, and the other from Japan. The American game was Rogue, for MS-DOS. Developed by a couple of college students from Santa Cruz, California, it laid the groundwork for several action-RPG gameplay tropes, such as procedurally generated game content, inventory and equipment management, and the “dungeon-crawling” one-against-many storyline and ethos.

The Japanese game was Dragon Slayer, which brought true real-time gameplay to the scene, and, unlike Rogue, incorporated puzzles (such as unlocking doors by placing blocks in the right order) into its challenges, along with combat. The sequel, Xanadu, expanded on the original’s innovations in every way, incorporating the sidescrolling viewpoint that would become ubiquitous in Japanese games at the time, as well as the ability to visit towns and earn “karma” for doing good and evil actions, which in turn altered the residents’ attitudes toward the player. It was also among the first games ever to change the look of the player’s character based on items he equipped.

Xanadu was a runaway hit in Japan and set the stage for further sequels (such as 1990’s Sorcerian), as well as many imitators and innovations in traditional and action-RPGs to come. But the next game to have a major influence on the action-RPG wasn’t a role-playing game at all. 1986’s The Legend of Zelda was an action-adventure game that didn’t really have any role-playing elements in it, but it offered some key innovations that would go on to shape the action-RPG in major ways. In Dragon Slayer and Rogue, and games like them, players had to physically bump into enemies to attack them. But in The Legend of Zelda, players had an action button that caused the main character, Link, to swing his sword, shoot his bow, plant a bomb, and so on. This meant that players could move and attack, while keeping enemies at a distance. The entire face of action-RPGs would be changed by this innovation from another genre. The Legend of Zelda was such a massive hit that it caused a paradigm shift in game design, away from statistics-heavy turn-based RPGs to more action-oriented designs throughout Japanese publishers – and, to a lesser degree, in the West as well.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, games saw a rise in “RPG elements” being added to action genres, with mixed results. Sometimes gamers ended up with honest-to-goodness action-RPGs; sometimes they got Frankenstein’s monsters that nobody wanted to play. The best of the bunch were titles like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, which saw the Castlevania series of platforming action games get an RPG makeover with quests, towns, and a nonlinear game world, as well as 1989’s River City Ransom, a brawler with tons of stats, equipment, character leveling, and a huge cast of characters.

In 1993, Secret of Mana brought one of the first pauseable real-time combat systems to the action-RPG, allowing players to control a single character in their parties – while the others were controlled by A.I. subroutines. Pausing the game gave players the opportunity to issue specific orders through a seamless ring menu (copied in countless games to this day), removing the need for cumbersome screen-switching. It was also groundbreaking in that it allowed more players to drop in or out of controlling characters in real time, at any time, during gameplay – completely unique in video games at the time.

“Sleeper” titles, like 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, progenitor of the “Metroidvania” sub-genre of action-RPG (named for the games Metroid and Castlevania, which share similar characteristics), proved wildly popular in Japan – but also with American audiences, thanks to their unique blend of platforming, role-playing, puzzle-solving, and adventuring elements. Indeed, action-RPGs proved to have such broad appeal in the West that they were even present in the last days of the video arcade, with classics like Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom and Shadow of Mystara. This was despite the design and publishing of action-RPGs being almost totally dominated by Japanese firms. But that was about to change.

The Present

In 1997, Blizzard Entertainment – a company theretofore known primarily for its real-time strategy game Warcraft, released a new twist on the PC action-RPG. Called Diablo, this game eschewed traditional PC role-playing tropes and looked way, way back to the past to games like Rogue, for things like procedurally generated dungeons and randomly created loot to drive players ever onward. Combat was the focus, and it was extremely simplified: Just point at something with your mouse and click on it. Blizzard also created a completely free multiplayer environment where players could connect to enjoy Diablo’s endlessly randomized dungeon crawls together, and talk about it in chat rooms between sessions.

Diablo was a massive, runaway success. It single-handedly resurrected the action-RPG in the West, and gave rise to a bevy of sequels – the most recent of which is 2012’s Diablo III. It was so successful, in fact, that it inspired an entire wave of similar titles, many of which were excellent games in their own right – including the Dungeon Siege series, Torchlight, and the recent PC hit Path of Exile.

Other Western genres began to incorporate role-playing elements into their action-oriented gameplay ethos, creating new takes on the action-RPG genre. While 1992’s Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss had taken the real-time RPG to the first-person perspective, games like 2009’s Borderlands took the Diablo formula and put it into a first-person shooter mold, while adding a good chunk of humor and depth of story to boot.

Of course, Japanese action-RPGs were far from finished. The same year that Borderlands was released, a little-known Japanese development studio called From Software released a game called Demon’s Souls, which went largely unnoticed in the West, save for a dedicated few fans. Two years later, From Software released the game’s spiritual successor, Dark Souls – which improved upon its predecessor in every way. Critically acclaimed, Dark Souls combined the intricate combat mechanics of fighting games, the detailed character customization of traditional RPGs, and the action-based controls and puzzling of action-adventure titles, along with a brilliant story and setting. It reset the bar for action-RPGs from both Japan and the West, not only in terms of the types of gameplay it combined, but also in terms of its extreme challenge. Instead of drawing players in with the promise of fairly easily gained loot and experience, Dark Souls promised to reward players for perseverance and curiosity.

The West, too, saw a throwback to the earlier days, as independent developers and fans began to clamor for (and get) games that emulated the permanent character death of Rogue. Called “permadeath,” this gameplay feature is a staple of the sub-genre of “Roguelike” action-RPGs, and those games traditionally offer a fresh, randomized playthrough each time the player dies. Popular titles in the Roguelike action-RPG sub-genre include revamps of Rogue itself (such as the popular Nethack), and newer games like Rogue Legacy, FTL: Faster Than Light, and Nuclear Throne.

The Future

The line between traditional RPG and action-RPG has always been slightly blurry, and folks will tend to argue about which game has been (or will be) in which genre. Regardless, the action-RPG fan has much to look forward to.

The rest of 2015 still has more expansions for the awesome Destiny, including The Taken King. There’s also Fallout 4… which, yeah, is probably a traditional RPG, but you could go through it guns-blazing if you wanted to. And come on, who isn’t excited for Fallout 4?

And then there’s 2016. We know that it will bring Dark Souls III, which is sure to be a fantastic title. It’s also bringing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Dishonored 2, both shooters with traditional RPG elements, and both can be played like action-RPGs – they actually give you that much choice. Fable Legends will let players hack and slash their way through the bad guys, or be the bad guys, if they want to – a unique twist on the multiplayer action-RPG, introducing some strategy elements into the genre.

The bottom line is: If you like a little depth with your action, a little thinking with your gunplay, or a little grinding with your gibs, the future is very bright on both sides of the Atlantic.